The Arlington County Board’s Trumpist Approach

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After months (it’s been months) of individuals and commissions trying to find the “next normal” for Arlington public engagement, the County Board has taken a step in the direction of reactivating Arlington’s decision-making infrastructure. If one takes a moment to analyze it, it has been a decidedly “Trumpist” approach. Hear me out.

The Trump administration has a play book: get the public distracted about something pretty basic and easy to do, tell them it’s impossible and move forward with whatever you deem is important, wait for something negative to happen that flies in the face of your stated agenda, acquiesce and say that you always supported doing the right thing, create something new that lacks any semblance of organization or success metrics, and then make it difficult for even the most stalwart public servant to make it work.

Arlington County makes a big deal about Community Engagement. Through its over 40 commissions, committees and a multitude of niche working groups, resident volunteers keep the county running with a litany of events and meetings that provide oversight, feedback, and insight into County initiatives that support county goals. Per the website, “Arlington County government relies on the hard work of its many civic-minded volunteer commissioners to help it make decisions that benefit our community.”

Libby Garvey grudgingly nodded to the public by saying that commissions can request to meet in her April statements ‘“business essential for addressing the coronavirus or the continuity of business operations for the County.” The “continuity of business operations” includes “the adoption of the budget, the approval of tax rates and fees, and appropriations of funds necessary to keep government running,”.’

Get the public distracted about something pretty basic and move forward with whatever you deem is important. When COVID struck, the County Board added a statement to all of its commissions’ webpages, “Effective March 2020, per County guidance all meetings have been canceled or postponed to ensure safety of all participants.” The County created a quite robust worksheet on how to determine whether county meetings were essential.

So, while the worksheet outlined how to make those meetings viable through a virtual format, the county policy actually was to cancel all of the meetings, wholesale. This included cancelling every one of the Planning Commission meetings April-July even though “authorized by the Virginia State Code. [The Planning Commission] promotes the orderly development of Arlington County and its environs by advising the County Board on development and use of land, facilities and zoning.”

While community involvement was put in the deep freeze, the County staff and Board moved full speed ahead on a huge menu of building and development, including  site plan amendments, license agreements, funding agreements, and purchasing agreements through their scheduled working meetings. In listening to the Board meetings, moving to a virtual meeting took some getting used to, but they did it and the decisions they made – decisions impacting Arlington County residents quality of life –  were largely made at the direction of staff with no input from the very groups who were put in place as a guardrail to bad decision making.

Tell them it’s impossible and not good for them.  When asked about the ability of committees and commissions to go virtual, concerns of equity of internet access (didn’t the county just spend millions putting in fiber?) and lack of staff time were cited as the reasons that wasn’t possible. Individual community members sought out the Board and County Manager and raised their concerns and highlighted the problems – all for naught. The County Board continued to make primarily unanimous decisions rubber stamping staff recommendations.

The irony of County Board members  who ran on community engagement — Libby Garvey  “making it more feasible for time-challenged Arlington residents to weigh in on public issues” or Katie Cristol’s “The Power of Together”, or Christian Dorsey’s focus on equity—all fell flat when the going got tough. Making excuses about how it is too hard to move the commission meetings to a virtual format.

Meanwhile, the luckiest of county residents moved to working remotely via teleconference, students were meeting with their teachers remotely, and even the Arlington County Civic Federation, moved to virtual meetings in May.

Was it easy? No. Was involvement deemed important? Yes. And they figured out how to make technology work. 

The County Staff and Board couldn’t figure it out. Well, until they were forced to by outraged residents

Wait for something negative to happen that flies in the face of your stated agenda. With all of the talk of the Missing Middle Housing initiative and the accolades given to the Columbia Pike Form Based Code, it is not a surprise that the County staff was recommending that the County Board move forward with a request to advertise new density incentives along the densest corridor that doesn’t have metro. The plan to (in plain speak) make it easier for the County to meet its affordable housing goals by expanding those eligible to those who don’t need a subsidy to buy a house, and give the developers yet more density in exchange for… (wait for it) basically nothing resulting in further inequity, especially for Black and Brown people of Arlington.

How did this happen? The Housing Commission hadn’t reviewed the item, nor had the Planning Commission.  Why hadn’t the Housing and Planning Commissions reviewed the proposal? They hadn’t been meeting. Because of COVID-19 restrictions. And, these committees are not allowed to speak amongst small groups, theoretically due to the FOIA.

Luckily a group of housing advocates stood up and said, wait, you are missing the point. The County Board was in a bind. Do they move forward with the recommendation of staff [like they usually do] or do they use the lack of commission engagement as an excuse to put off a decision. They delayed the decision… until the commissions can review and discuss how it fits into the larger housing issues that Arlington is facing.

This in combination with the embarrassing exchange between the Green Valley Civic Association and the County Staff and Board about their lack of community engagement along with a memo from Commission chairs to the County Board saying that forgoing commission and community meetings wasn’t an option and that the county staff had to find a way, led to a change in plans. Only because residents stood up to the county did change occur. It did not occur because we had leadership who believed in transparency and engagement and demanded better on their own. Just like the era of Trump, residents must be vigilant.

Acquiesce and say that you always supported doing the right thing. Within a week, Libby Garvey sent a note out to the commission chairs underscoring the value the commissions bring to the community and that the commissions would have the options to meet in new ways. “We know how eager our advisory groups are to get back to work on behalf of our community, and we are eager to have your advice and counsel again,” she said. “There is so much to be done, and so much our advisory groups can contribute.”

Create something new that lacks any semblance of organization or success metrics. However, just like Trump’s advisory commissions and policies, there is a lack of clarity on how this will happen. The Chair has to request it, the staff have to agree, but yet the county staff don’t need to give permission. So how will this work?

Make it difficult for even the most stalwart public servant to make it work. I’m not sure how this loose guidance does anything other than making more work for the volunteer and, again, giving staff the ability to block any semblance of forward movement. Let’s face it: setting up a virtual meeting, announcing it on the website, and getting going is NOT rocket science. The folks who are on these commissions are connected and well resourced; they are not going to have issues beyond their own lack of familiarity with how to participate in a meeting remotely.

So, bravo to our County Staff and County Board for once again demonstrating that the Arlington Way is good and gone. The County Board’s preference is simply to have the ability to vote unanimously on anything that the County Staff put before them, regardless of what the community wants or needs. Sounds distinctly Trumpist, no?

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Arlington’s Goldilocks Dilemma: Over and Under reaching during the pandemic

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The Arlington County government has enacted a “Continuity of Government” ordinance to help it address the emergency presented by the COVID-19 epidemic.

All levels of American government need and have emergency powers. How, when and where government exercises those powers is a test of leadership. Will the government overreach, underreach, or get it right?

The Arlington County government’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic has displayed all three types of responses. There are many respects in which our government has gotten it right during this emergency. Expanded efforts to provide food to the hungry and deferral of the opening and operation of the Aquatics Center and Lubber Run Community Center are two examples. The Manager’s decision to postpone until 2021 the adoption of a 10-year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) is another good decision.

But, in a number of other respects, our government has either overreached or underreached.

Overreach

A conspicuous example of overreach was the hastily-retracted effort by County government to use its consent agenda to try to enact an ordinance amendment that would have shut down several important aspects of Arlington’s long-range planning functions. As the Arlington Sun-Gazette explained, several eagle-eyed citizens and groups like the Urban Forestry Commission and Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future spotted the proposed amendment, raised an outcry, and forced the amendment to be deleted:

“But concerns indeed were raised, largely over a provision that potentially would have shunted aside the county government’s Long-Range Planning Committee and various review committees that consider the implications of new development.

“‘Proposing such overreach, especially opportunistically so during a deep public-health and economic crisis, favors those who most profit from land development above the public’s interest and fairness and transparency in government operations,’ local resident Rod Simmons said in an e-mail to County Board Chairman Libby Garvey. ‘It would effectively disenfranchise meaningful and required public participation in guiding land-use decisions… .’

“County officials got the message, removing that proposal from the emergency-powers declaration as it moved toward a final vote on May 19.”

Some residents continue to have justifiable concerns about the ordinance as it stands after that final vote. For example, local civic activist Suzanne Sundburg wrote to the County Board on May 19, noting in part:

The overly broad language of the ordinance makes it very difficult for the public to know precisely how broadly the County Manager may interpret his new powers to “temporarily suspend enforcement of existing provisions of County ordinances and conditions in use permits and special exception site plans” and to “temporarily modify or suspend application of administrative processes and procedures and other requirements. …

“Moreover, there appears to be no meaningful process or mechanism for the public to dispute or appeal the County Manager’s decisions in a timely fashion, even though the manager may be forced to grant relief that is unwarranted in certain cases simply because it falls into the same category as a decision legitimately made in another case.”

Other examples of County government overreach during the pandemic include the now retracted decisions to:

  • prevent County residents even from entering and passively using County parks
  • banning open-air farmer’s markets entirely

Underreach

Frederick Burr Opper‘s Alphonse and Gaston (1906).

“The phrase ‘Alphonse-and-Gaston routine,’ or ‘Alphonse-Gaston Syndrome,’ indicates a situation wherein one party refuses to act until another party acts first.”

One of the glaring examples of underreach in governmental use of its emergency powers relates to mandating the use of masks. In this instance, the federal, Virginia, and Arlington County governments all have been too halting and too timid.

At the federal level, it took the CDC far too long to develop its guidelines on the use of masks. But once the CDC finally did so in early April, both Governor Northam and the Arlington County government ought to have immediately seized the initiative and exercised their existing emergency powers to promulgate carefully tailored guidelines for when, where and how to mandate the use of masks. Both Virginia and Arlington bungled this leadership test.

Almost two months (!) after the CDC acted, Virginia finally announced on May 26 that it was going to mandate the use of masks effective May 29:

“The governor announced Tuesday that masks will be made mandatory in indoor public spaces, including businesses, starting Friday. The state’s mask requirement will have some exceptions, including for eating, children under 10, and those with health conditions that prevent them from wearing a mask.”

Better late than never for Governor Northam, I suppose. But Arlington could have issued a similar mandate in mid-April. Why did Libby Garvey play Alphonse to Ralph Northam’s Gaston? We may never know for sure, but one likely explanation is poor legal advice from the Arlington County Attorney based on his erroneous belief that the Dillon Rule prevented Arlington from acting on its own. If that is the reason, it’s wrong. In a health emergency like the present one, Arlington could have acted in April to enact an ordinance mandating mask usage under circumstances similar to those Northam has now belatedly enumerated. And if the poor legal advice from the County Attorney is not the reason for Arlington’s inaction, then Arlington’s failure to act lies solely in the laps of the County Board.

All the County Board did in the meantime was to decide to offer free masks. Board member Katie Cristol said “the idea … was to encourage rather than mandate mask usage—a carrot vs. stick approach.” That approach was wrong. The Board in April should have offered both a carrot and a stick approach to wearing masks.

Conclusion

Arlington holds itself out as making “world class” decisions. In the overreach and underreach examples described above, Arlington has failed to meet its own self-proclaimed standard of excellence.

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A Park vs. A Park in Arlington

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When you think of a park, what do you think of? Arlington is one of the top five richest counties in the country. An award will not replace having spaces to play and relax for all ages.

Arlington County was just ranked as #4 best park in the U.S.  by the Trust for Public Land. Let’s set aside the fact that in this instance Arlington is considered a city, that the calculation includes federal park land that would not be considered accessible (i.e., the median of the GW parkway or the Arlington Cemetery, which is not conducive to sports, relaxation or get togethers) or that the TPL does not take into consideration the number of the people expected to use the size of the park (TPL does not use parkland per capita and instead uses access “walkability” to park where tens of thousands of people have access to a park which could be smaller than most backyards).  Let’s just focus on what a park in Arlington currently is.

In Arlington, a school is tabulated as a park— all of the school land, including the buildings and parking lots are included in the park calculation. The schools don’t have the funding to take care of the “park” so you will notice the neglect due to the high-volume traffic and lack of maintenance.  

In Arlington, a park could be a privately owned space, like the Market Commons or the new Selina Gray Square Park. These spaces exist at the whim of the landowner and may have been added so that the owner could get additional density or some other benefit from the county. Most of these spaces are maintained by the county but when the owner decides that they want to rebuild, that space is theirs.

At .2 acres, Selina Grey Square Park is a walkway with a name, primarily comprised of sidewalks.

In 2017, the Market Common was almost destroyed for more retail-friendly outside space. It was only after protests that the plan was sunset and the trees and the “park” remain. However, the residents lucked out because the Market Common is owned by the developer, not the county and it could have gone a very different direction.

In Arlington, a park is highly likely to be closed based on the excuse that either the park itself or some other nearby area needs to be renovated. This has been especially ugly during the COVID times as neighbors seek out green open space. Jennie Dean Park, Green Valley Town Center, Mosaic Park, and Henry Clay Park are all currently fenced off for renovations, renovations that will take years to complete. So, while we have thousands of people within walking distance to a park, they certainly won’t be using these beauties.  

Mosaic Park was once full of life with people literally just hanging out, running their dogs and escaping the cement caverns of Ballston. What is clear is that it is a lot of cement and while trees have just been added, they aren’t set up to grow very tall in their tree coffins.

A tree that could be 24” in diameter will struggle in these spots.
For the last three(!) years, Mosaic Park has served as a developer’s staging area and now is “under construction.”

Henry Clay Park is slated to be closed for at least a year with $1.4 million allocated to renovate “the basketball court, the playground, the picnic shelter, fences, and landscaping, among other upgrades.” What is most noticeable as you drive by Henry Clay Park is that they have killed almost all of the trees and added huge swaths of cement on a much loved community park.

The old Henry Clay Park that is undergoing a $1.4mil upgrade.
Henry Clay Park blocked off for at least a year, the trees removed and lots of new cement.

But in Arlington, a park is most likely to be a “tree preservation” zone. What this means is that the developer has made a commitment to save some of the trees. The trees won’t be saved though as the construction crew decimates the land under the guise of burying lines and pipes and having no incentive  to keep anything alive. The trees and sod will be replanted but not watered, the weeds will begin to grow and the area will be used however is most convenient be it a dirt bike ramp or a dump truck play area.

Green Valley (formerly Nauck) Town Center had all but two trees removed.
Green Valley (formerly Nauck) Town Center declared a Tree Preservation Area.

S Eads and 23rd St Park with its welcoming seating.
S Eads and 23rd St Park with its singular “tree.”

The exception would be Oakland Park where they removed the trees around the new features resulting in people having places to sit by themselves in the full blaring sun.

All in all, a park in Arlington probably isn’t what I think of when I think of a park, but there is certainly the opportunity to strive for a more inclusive, equitable version of a park as we move forward.

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Those “Well Meaning” Tree People

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“A society grows great, when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in” – Greek Proverb

A neighbor shared an email with me this week that was discussing the merits of removing a significant number of trees for a county project. There were three lines of particular interest

  • Infrastructure investments will improve storm water runoff and reduce flooding
  • Tree preservation is a priority of [NOVA/Arlington parks] so they will work to make sure that there isn’t a loss of trees.
  • The opposition [AKA those who are trying to save the trees] is well meaning but not in the interest of our region.

I’ve heard these three lines a lot in the last few years and they are said by three primary groups: the schools advocates, the sports advocates, and the developers, which, let’s face it, includes the housing advocates. Thus, the County Board and the School Board take these comments and perpetuate these short sighted opinions without taking any responsibility for their roles in positioning the county for the future. And, thus, Arlington has been left with a wholesale slaughter of not just green space, but trees in general.

The Tree People (TTP) have been playing by the rules with overly civil and agreeable tactics including writing letters, hosting meetings with the elected officials and trying to use facts and data to build a case. They are the receivers of sympathetic looks and phrasing like “we agree with you, but our project is more important to the youth.” The irony is that the small group of TTP are largely childfree and making the case that saving the trees will benefit kids in both the short term (asthma, air quality, etc) as well as the long term (infrastructure and long term planning).

TTP are super nice people, they aren’t zealots, they aren’t anti growth, anti development, anti schools or anti sports. TTP are pro-planning for a better Arlington. The data reveals that mature trees are critical in storm water run off and that while infrastructure like tiling and terraces can mitigate the damage caused by overdevelopment, it is the mature trees that will soak up the most water and have the largest impact. When you cut down a healthy mature tree, Arlington needs to spend a lot of money to move that water down to the Potomac and the water that we are sending down is coated in all of the grime that is on our streets. A rain garden or three young trees will not take the place of a mature tree.

Tree preservation is not a priority of Arlington or NVPA. The county officials say it is, but their actions do not align with their words. If you plant seven new trees for every one old tree that you take down, but only one new tree survives beyond three months, trees are not a priority. When every project that comes into the Arlington development docket outlines clear cutting mature trees, tree preservation is not a priority. When every project that has been retooled to save some trees damages the remaining trees’ root system and they die, tree preservation is not a priority. Take a moment: can you find any project in Arlington and identify tree preservation and then demonstrate in the final product that there indeed was tree preservation?

TTP should not be condescendingly labeled, “well meaning,” they are thinking long term, strategically and for the betterment of everyone. Quite frankly, they are thinking bigger than themselves and their immediate families and their immediate wants. The schools advocates are filled with parents worried about their kids right now and not necessarily what their kids will need in ten, twenty or even thirty years. The sports advocates are filled with parents who want their kids to play their preferred sports right now and adults like me who want to be able to regularly play our leagues or hop on a trail without having to drive far. It is about what we want, right now, not about the long term viability of playing in the future. And the developers and housing advocates are in it for the money right now. How to create revenue or ease housing costs right at this moment, not about the long term thinking necessary for people to live a healthy life or the quality of the surroundings. The sports advocates, schools advocates, affordable housing advocates, developers, and the County Board are thinking too short term, just about the right now.

Saving a tree isn’t well meaning. Saving a tree is recognizing that growing a mature tree takes a long time and is beneficial to everyone, especially the youth and the active. It is acknowledging that a mature tree is good for the air, for the water, and for the animals. Saving a tree is being strategic, data driven, and justified.

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Immaturity of $1 Billion Organization Exposed: The Referee Debacle Continues

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I’m writing about the referee payment problems. I submitted my concerns in January about how absurd it was that referees were not getting paid.

Apparently, our newest board member is most naïve in the ways of Arlington and was unable to fulfill his promise to get the referees paid by Feb. 1 “at the latest.” His updated desire is to resolve things “before spring arrives.”

Bless his heart. Now Matt DeFerranti has set up a Go Fund Me page to “Pay the Referees,” seeking $12,500.

Let’s recap the facts quickly:

  • The County Board was alerted to the situation of the referees outstanding payments due and the lack of contractual compliance in March 2019, August 2019, November 2019, December 2019, January 2020, and February 2020
  • The County Board voted to give themselves each a $19,000 pay raise with the new salary adjusted to the area median salary in June of 2019
  • The County Board voted not only to extend the County Manager’s contract, but also increase his salary by 4.5% or $12,712.
  • The County Manager just put up a $1.4 billion budget proposal for FY2021
  • Neither the County Board nor the County Manager can figure out how to pay the $12,500 to the unpaid referees. That is .0000089% of the budget or 90% of the County Manager’s pay raise or 60% of each of the County Board Member’s pay raises.

There is absolutely no excuse, no law, and no rationale that this timeline of events makes sense in the 6th richest county in the United States. The immaturity of processes, the unprofessionalism of the county staff, and the lack of accountability by the county board members is totally unacceptable. The county sure seems like it is planning to substitute “bush-league” for “world-class” in its vision statement.

Why are they literally passing the buck back to the taxpayers to cover their negligence? I applaud Matt for at least trying, but this is not Mayberry, folks.

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Columbia Pike Project

It appears the lessons have not been learned and the residents, businesses, and commuters in the area will continue to suffer the consequences in addition to the untold millions of tax payer dollars wasted by the County’s poor management.

Moving County’s Community Engagement processes into the 21st century

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Arlington County takes great pride in its community engagement strategy which includes a robust communication process that includes a network of civic associations, commissions, and working groups. The County has a responsibility to announce meetings and provide the community access to the minutes of such meetings, as deemed by Virginia open meeting laws.

The Civic associations are a fundamental method to inform residents, involve them in decision making, and solicit feedback. The Civic Associations often bear the brunt of communicating and documenting the county’s presentations for their residents. However, the county’s civic association strategy has seen a series of unforced errors recently: 

  • Mark Schwartz tried to rationalize why the thousands of people that lived along Columbia Pike or used the Pike didn’t know about a major transportation project that is going to take a year to complete. Affected people will need to make adjustments to their work schedules, child care accommodations, and purchasing pattern due to the County’s poor planning and communication.
  • Then in a one-week span there were two sewage spills into Four Mile Run. Other than a cryptic alert and a twitter feed, the County has been silent on the reason, solution, and impact of the sewage spill. A spill that impacts thousands of people that live along Four Mile Run Creek, use the parks immediately adjacent, or the millions of organisms that are impacted by the spill draining into the Chesapeake Bay. 
  • At the Transportation Committee, the County announced moving forward with the Shirlington Road Bridge. However, the Green Valley Civic Association in which the Shirlington Road Bridge sits, was never consulted or informed about the project’s status. Rather the Civic association had to push on the County for answers resulting in an obscure note from the Ombudsman referencing the Four Mile Run Revitalization project where the committee was told the bridge is outside of the scope of the project.
Several Months out…. still no Meeting Minutes

The Commissions and Work Groups are also key way for the County Staff to vet projects with subsets of community interest groups who will then provide advisory guidance to the County Board. The meetings are often an hour long or more presentation by county staff or consultants with a limited amount of time for commission/committee members discussion on the topic. Often these meetings are lacking publicly available minutes that would memorialize the conversation, and when meeting minutes are available, the document is so general and does not attribute conversations and debate to any particular person.

This lack of documentation and access to data contributes to rumors and heresay, results in members’ contributions being marginalized, and impedes residents who don’t have time to attend from having access and insight into the conversation.

These meetings are routinely referenced by the Chairs of the commission/committee or the staff liaisons as the rationale for supporting particular policy decisions in their testimony to the County Board.  When dissenting members highlight that the reports shared with the County Board are not complete or representative to the divide in thought, the County Board is often reluctant to open the conversation up for deeper conversations at the Board level given lack of time and competing priorities.

To date, the county staff hasn’t been held accountable, as examples above show, for communicating properly with community members and often have already moved a project forward. Furthermore, the county staff is perpetuating mis- information with their inability to document meeting conversation and debate creating a hazy version of the truth for the County Board and the general public.

It is unreasonable to think that residents will be able to attend and participate in the multitude of meetings occurring across the county. Today’s Arlington County resident is operating in an ever-complex environment that is complicated by long commutes, multiple policy issues directly impacting their lives/homes/children, and limited time for self-care. The onus is on the county to create a methodology for residents to understand the discussions involved in how decisions are made.

It is time for a video recording and transcript of every meeting that is available to the public within a reasonable amount of time (2 weeks) to enable every resident to have transparent insight into county decision making.

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